Fables from the Jew­ish Tradition

Rab­bi Manes Kogan; Sandy Berkof­sky-San­tana, trans.; Marce­lo Fer­der, illus.
  • Review
By – January 26, 2012

These forty extreme­ly brief fables — some only sev­er­al lines and many about half a page — are the same as those found at the back of the great resource vol­ume, The Book of Leg­ends: Leg­ends from the Tal­mud and Midrash (Sefer Ha-Aggadah), Edit­ed by Hay­im Nah­man Bia­lik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky. How­ev­er, Rab­bi Kogan, the reteller of these fables, illu­mi­nates each fable with insight­ful expli­ca­tion and con­nec­tions drawn from the Tal­mud and midrash. These inter­pre­ta­tions con­tain the Jew­ish mean­ing and per­spec­tive of these fables, along with their Tal­mu­dic and midrashic sources. In addi­tion, he includes Aesop’s ver­sions of some of the same fables but assigns very dif­fer­ent mes­sages to them. Because of the worth of fables accom­pa­nied by these offered com­men­taries and sources, this book can become a valu­able lit­er­ary text for adults and young peo­ple to read and explore together.

Fables are like didac­tic haiku’ poet­ry: through a brief nar­ra­tive, often involv­ing ani­mals, they offer us strik­ing­ly effec­tive moral lessons on how to live and behave. Fables have been part of the Jew­ish tra­di­tion as well as world folk­lore. And as Rab­bi Kogan makes clear, fables have trav­eled a com­plex route in world and Jew­ish his­to­ry. How­ev­er, while Rab­bi Kogan men­tions Aesop, La Fontaine, and oth­er fab­u­lists in his valu­able essay at the end of the book, About Fables, Midrash and Tal­mud,” he nev­er men­tions the two great Jew­ish fab­u­lists: Rab­bi Meir and Berechi­ah Ha-Nakdan. Rab­bi Meir was a stu­dent of Aki­va who lived in Hel­lenic Asia Minor dur­ing the sec­ond cen­tu­ry B.C.E.. Accord­ing to the Tal­mud, he col­lect­ed 300 fables, some of which are found in the Tal­mud and midrash. Ha-Nakdan, known as the Jew­ish Aesop, was born in France. The date of his birth is not exact­ly known. It may have been about 1190 C.E.. Moses Hades has trans­lat­ed 119 of Ha-Nakdan’s fables in Fables of a Jew­ish Aesop. I rec­om­mend that these two fable books from the Jew­ish tra­di­tion be read in tandem.
Penin­nah Schram, well-known sto­ry­teller & author, is Pro­fes­sor of Speech and Dra­ma at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty’s Stern Col­lege. Her lat­est book is an illus­trat­ed anthol­o­gy, The Hun­gry Clothes and Oth­er Jew­ish Folk­tales (Ster­ling Pub­lish­ing) and a CD, The Min­strel & the Sto­ry­teller, with singer/​guitarist Ger­ard Edery (Sefarad Records). She is a recip­i­ent of a Covenant Award for Out­stand­ing Jew­ish Edu­ca­tor and the 2003 Nation­al Sto­ry­telling Net­work’s Life­time Achieve­ment Award.

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